SGI launch the Octane III

Silicon Graphics News

SGI have posted details about their new workstation, the Octane III. Although SGI are raiding the ghosts of workstations past for the name, sadly this isn’t heralding a return to MIPS and IRIX goodness.

In fact the Octane III seems to be going for the market created by the Cray CX-1, and the much missed machines from Orion – personal supercomputers.

As with all things from SGI, the first thing to look at is the case design.

Silicon Graphics SGI Octane III

Oh dear. Why drag out the good Octane name if you’re going to release a dull grey box? The Cray CX-1 looks like an extra from a sci-fi film – this just looks like a Dell. And – I’m sorry guys – but the new SGI logo makes the baby Jesus cry. It’s just terrible. (Brand New have an excellent deconstruction of the new logo, well worth a read)

Look at the awesome Cray CX-1:

Cray CX-1

Or SiCortex’s fantastic SC072:

SiCortex SC072

Or the original Silicon Graphics Octane (mine’s still in use, they’re awesome bits of kit):

Silicon Graphics Octane

Inside the case, though, things start to sound a bit better. The machine is available in three different configurations, all of which can run Red Hat or SUSE Linux (which SGI’s excellent ProPack enhancements) or Windows HPC Server 2008:

  • 19 Dual-Core Single Socket systems, giving 38 cores and 76GB RAM
  • Ten dual-socket quad-core Xeons processor boards, giving 80 cores and 960GB RAM
  • A single dual-socket Quad-Core Xeon processor board with 144GB Ram and 7 PCI-Express slots (2 x16, 4 x8, and a x4 for the RAID card)

The last option, the “graphics workstation”, is particularly underwhelming. The motherboard is mounted vertically, so the system essentially becomes the same as any stock, high end desktop.

Worse still, it seems all that NUMA goodness that made Origin 200s, 300s, and the rackmount Tezro such kick arse workstations is missing – sure, you can have 960GB RAM in an Octane III, but it’s not global shared memory. 10 processor boards, each with 96GB of local memory.

It’s a cluster in a box, using GigE or Infiniband (DDR or QDR) as the interconnect. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, except in a configuration like this it gives you zero flexibility. Unless you’ve got a workload that parallelises nicely, you’ll be running into some walls.

The prices start just under $8k for a single Nehalem node with 8 cores, and rises to $53k for 10 nodes, with 80 cores and 240GB of memory (24GB per node). Raid the piggy bank if you want to max out the RAM or have QDR Infiniband as the interconnect.

And here lies the big problem with this system – there’s too much overlap with the recently announced Cloudrack X2 systems. Sure, those require actual racks, and cooling, whereas the Octane III can run from a single 240V socket. (And it’s “whisper quiet”, apparently. Although to be fair, even large jet airliners are “whisper quiet” compared to the original Octane in fastfans mode).

Apart from being able to stick it on your desk, the Octane III just doesn’t seem to have much going for it, compared to the Cloudrack X2 or a decent high-end graphics workstation. The Cray CX-1 makes sense – Cray don’t really do ‘small’ supers, so having a deskside system is a good play – it’s a stepping stone to their bigger systems.

To make this work, SGI will have to sell in volume, and via it’s channel and partners. Can they duplicate Cray’s success with the CX-1? I’m not sure, especially as it’s not immediately obvious who this machine will appeal to. Really, I’d love to see SGI ship some sexy and powerful development and graphics workstations or baby supers, but the Octane III just seems too weak in too many areas.

You can grab full specs and datasheets over at SGI’s Octane III page.

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